By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
With two acting greats (Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall) in the cast of this courtroom/family drama, The Judge is undoubtedly worth a watch. The two gifted actors share a powerful chemistry onscreen, credibly portraying an estranged father and son with a mutual disdain for one another. The tension, drama and history between these two characters make this movie a much more compelling one than the prosaic courtroom drama that coexists in this story. The courtroom scenes cover territory that is all too familiar and often feel like they were written according to a Perry Mason manual of some sorts.
Downey stars as Hank Palmer, a wealthy and successful criminal lawyer practicing in Chicago. When Hank receives word that his beloved mother has passed away, he travels to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana and has to face his father with whom he has not spoken in several years. Hank’s father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), has served Carlinville as a well respected judge for many years. During his career, he has, however, made his share of criminal enemies. Not long after his wife’s funeral, Hank is brought up on murder charges for the death of Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), a man he once tried in his courtroom. With limited options of representation for such a major criminal case in Carlinville, Joseph most reluctantly seeks the counsel of his son Hank. The father and son struggle to put aside their personal grievances and their differences of opinion in an attempt to save Joseph’s life and salvage his reputation.
Directed by David Dobkin and written by Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, and Dobkin, The Judge does most certainly have its powerful and moving moments. The movie also has its share of delightful and sometimes hilarious comedy. Dobkin and his writers try to cover a little too much territory which makes their film run on a bit too long. At the same time, some of the subplots and background stories of these characters do have their entertaining and intriguing moments. The end result is slightly overstuffed, but not so much that the experience is completely tiresome and tedious. If I found anything tedious, it would be some of the court sequences which do not offer anything most movie and TV savvy people haven’t already experienced. Had Dobkin, Schenk, and Dubuque kept the relationship drama intact, but had taken an entirely different approach with the legal drama, then perhaps this film would have resonated stronger with me.
I could definitely get on board with the familial relations and the also cliche “prodigal son” plot, and that worked because those scenes featured the strongest writing in the film and also the superb performances of Duvall and Downey, Jr. The comedic scenes I mentioned above succeed because of Downey’s expertise in improvisation and his exceptional comic timing. As always, Duvall brings much heart and soul to his character. The film also features solid work by Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and a fun and amusing turn by Dax Sheppard. Billy Bob Thornton performs well as the stalwart prosecutor, Dwight Dickham, but much like all the other elements from the court scenes, his character suffers from corny writing and development.
The Judge may be guilty of court drama cliches, but the film does have its tenderness when it comes to telling the story of a family bonding to save its patriarch. Regardless of the movie’s problems, I’d recommend catching this movie theatrically. The performances of its lead actors make it worth the price of admission and it would take the hardest of hearts to not feel some emotion after leaving the theater.